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User Journal

Journal Journal: My signature

For awhile, I've had this signature:

DRM? Trusted Computing? Fine, but not with my code.

I do start to feel like a hypocrite looking at that. After all, I'm now working as an HD-DVD developer, making quite a bit of money, enjoying what I do, and not at all close to wanting to quit in outrage about the DRM.

But while I don't have to deal with DRM every day, I do have to deal with it often enough. While I have not personally written any code that does DRM, all my code will eventually be DRM'd on-disc, and one of my co-workers has, in fact, written some utilities to manage AACS stuff.

And, in general, I still feel that DRM is useless and should not be done, but I also have seen it done in ways that aren't really that bad, and even seen some things which benefit the consumer. Steam, for example, allows me to download the same game (unless it's Bioshock) anywhere I want to, anytime, so long as I remember my password and only log in at one place at a time. (So that's one download and/or game being played at a time.)

Steam is actually an example of "not that bad", as everything they do which benefits the consumer, they could've done without DRM. No, an example of something which benefits the consumer are the "music rental" services. After you get to a certain amount of music, it just makes more sense, financially, to simply rent your music rather than buy it. If the service goes away, and the DRM isn't cracked, then yes, you lose a bunch of music -- so you join another service and download the same music again.

I prefer to own my music, but I'm a bit of a fanatic.

So, while most days I'd rather see DRM go away forever, this signature is starting to be a bit hypocritical. After all, DRM is being done with my code, and most of what I write is not GPL'd.

So why do I have it?

Simple: Since I started using this signature, I've seen almost none of the retarded arguments against GPLv3 -- the arguments which talk about the GPL being used to attack DRM, that it's overstepping its bounds as a software license and attacking hardware... Whatever.

Because this statement makes all of those arguments go away. Licensing software under the GPLv3 is not directly attacking DRM, it's not even saying that you hate DRM and want to abolish it. It's simply saying that you may not use it with this code.

People point to the TiVo as an example -- shouldn't I want to license my software such that people can make cool stuff like the TiVo? Well, why should I, unless I'm getting a cut? It's simple: TiVo can either have my code for free, on my terms, or they can go somewhere else. There's plenty of GPLv2 or even BSD-licensed stuff they could have for free, or they could buy some commercial software -- maybe even from me.

I don't see that as inconsistent with what I do for a living, but this whole essay doesn't exactly fit in a signature. So I am posting a consistent position here:

I don't like DRM, and I don't like closed software that I don't have access to. Therefore, software which I release for free will have no part in this. If you're willing to pay me a living wage to develop software, I will develop pretty much whatever you want, so long as it's not wholly unethical (I won't write Lotus Notes for your Killbot). But if I release something as free and open, it's probably because I intend for it to stay that way.

So, if you have a problem with me using the GPLv3, either hire me or use somebody else's code.

Networking

Journal Journal: Good ISPs?

I live in a small town in Iowa. An ISP here is offering fiber to the home for $60/mo, free installation. That's 100 mbits, and they do support net neutrality -- meaning that if they can't build enough bandwidth to support everyone on YouTube (or BitTorrent), they'll simply move to a metered model, but apparently they don't have to yet.

We spend enough time talking about the ISPs we hate -- which ones do we love? Anywhere else with fast, cheap, neutral Internet?

User Journal

Journal Journal: Meta: Is the new threading system messed up? 2

So it seems like the new discussion-threading system (aka "D2", according to the preferences page) no longer works for me.

I had just gotten used to it -- in particular, being able to click on comments to expand or collapse them -- and suddenly at some point this afternoon I reloaded a page and the whole thing just went away. I'm back to the regular discussion style, where clicking on the title of another user's post will open that post in a separate page.

However, I still have the new style selected in my preferences. I'm just curious whether this is a global problem or something specific to my network or configuration. I've tried disabling AdBlock and some other relevant FF extensions but no dice.

Anyone else noticing anything amiss?

User Journal

Journal Journal: Ruminations on Rememble 5

So I recently ran across a new site, courtesy of the fine folks at MetaFilter: Rememble. In a nutshell, it's a sort of 'digital scrapbooking' site. It describes itself as "a 'washing line' for your digital bits and pieces. Thread together texts, photos, videos, sounds, scribbles, scans, notes, tweets... so they're not drifting in a digital wasteland."

As a compulsive digitizer, I'll go first and say that it sounds great. There are a lot of services that provide the ability to save little text snippets for later (Google's Google Notebook, when coupled with the appropriate Firefox Addon, comes to mind), and Flickr is the gold standard for digital photo organization and sharing, and there are similar single-media sites for other purposes. However, there's a distinct lack of a single site that allows you to collect, view, organize, scrapbook, and share various types of digital media in a cohesive format. And that's a darn shame: as more people get online and involved in modern interactive services, as they get more of their lives online, it's only natural that they'll want to be able to save parts of it for later, just like they do in the physical world. (And, of course, being virtual lets you do things in an online notebook that you can't easily do in a dead-tree one, like suddenly decide to view all your clippings by date instead of by subject.)

Unfortunately, Rememble's execution -- at least at the moment -- falls flat. For a site that treads on being almost postmodern, its approach seems driven by a desire to create a vast silo of exploitable content. First major gaffe: you can't see *anything* without registering for an account. That's right, nothing. So let's say you set up an account, dump a lot of stuff into it, and then want to share it with some friends? Nope, sorry, they all have to sign up for accounts. This is such a major, deal-breaking limitation, it's hard not to immediately think of one of those ubiquitous "FAILURE" image macros. I can only hope that this is some sort of limitation due to the service being new -- I mean, they can't really be that stupid, can they?

Similarly, you can't deep-link to content that you upload. That's right; you can't embed things you upload to Rememble on your blog. While this isn't as obvious a death-wish as the lack of sharing ability, it's potentially more damaging. Flickr succeeded in its early days mainly because it became popular with bloggers looking for an alternative to services like ImageShack that didn't suck quite so badly. Flickr offered one-click tools for resizing an image and embedding it into a blog post. It was slick, people loved it, and they got a community of users rather quickly.

Beyond that, there doesn't seem to easily be a way of getting content *out* of Rememble once you've gotten it in. This bothers me, personally, although it may not be the sort of thing that a casual, non-backup-obsessed user might think of. (Though, in my opinion, they should.) A service like Rememble could, over time, end up being a significant repository of information and digital relics; having your Rememble store disappear would be like having your family scrapbooks torched.

After taking a casual look at Rememble, and comparing it to a successful service like Flickr, a number of concrete steps come to mind for, if not actually ensuring the success of a community-oriented "Web 2.0" media-sharing site, at least making it slightly less prone to sucking:

1) Sign-ins should only be required for content creators, never viewers. Even a free, one-minute signup procedure is one minute too long to expect random people I might want to share content with to go through. It's unnecessary and borders on arrogant.

2) Prohibiting blogging and direct linking may seem like a good idea, but it's not. Really. The people who are going to want to blog and direct-link are also the ones who are going to make or break your service. Don't alienate them 30 seconds after they upload their first bit of media. Yes, it may burn you to spend money on bandwidth so your users can use you like ImageShack, the Internet's cheap village whore, but chin up: everybody has to start somewhere.

3) Expose your APIs, and encourage third-party development. (To be fair, I'm not sure what Rememble is doing with their APIs; maybe they expose them and just aren't obvious about it.) Use standard interchange formats whenever possible. Since exposed APIs are considered one of the keys to useful, modern web services, they really need to get this right. Luckily, Flickr has a good model. Follow it. Also: Let users *export* content, not just import it. Acting like the NSA, hoovering up stuff and never letting anything slip back out, makes people justifiably nervous.

4) Provide a way for backups. Also: nobody likes commitment. Don't expect users to trust you, your datacenter, your RAID array, or your backup strategy. For all we know, you're running this thing on a spare server that your boss could repossess at any time. Provide users an easy way to grab a snapshot of everything they've created (a big tarball of media files and XML metadata) for their own peace of mind. Also, people like knowing that they have a way out if things go sour.

If Rememble took those four steps, they would probably have a service that I'd use right now -- at least for trivial stuff. From there, the sky's the limit.

Of 'second tier' features, an ability to encrypt content using an open-source, client-side applet (so that it gets encrypted by me, not by the server on the far end) would be nice, particularly when you're talking about automatically archiving text messages and other communications that may be sensitive now but nice to have later -- perhaps this could be offered as a premium service? If you do it right, with full auditability, you might even get corporate interest.

What really would make a service like Rememble outstanding are the interfaces. Imagine plugging a service like this into your SMS/text-messaging service from your phone, your email reader, and your IM client (archiving both conversations and status messages): you'd have a single online archive of all your communications. Privacy nightmare? Quite possibly. But it would also be handy; no more trying to remember how somebody sent you a bit of information. Plug it into your address book, so that you could cross-reference other people's online identities, and you'd be able to see all communications with a particular person over time, regardless of medium. Or run a quick search and you could see all the people you discussed a particular topic with.

I find the possibilities for a Rememble-like service pretty exciting; for someone who really likes compiling and managing information, it's just oozing with potential. And more than anything else, that's why Rememble is painful: it takes something that should be mind-blowing and renders it in a form that's lame and unimaginative; without an obvious grasp of what web services are all about.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Party at my place! 5

OK, not really my place, but the bar/restaurant where my coworkers and I usually go for happy hour on Fridays. Any and all are welcome. Let's see if we can't get a decent sized turn out for this.

Oh, and the bribe (almost forgot about that): since this is ostensibly IT related, I'll pick up the tab for the first two drinks for each person. And by "I" I mean "my boss's corporate card".

To clarify: I'll need to collect business cards to pick up the tab. Sorry, that's the way things are. If you don't have a business card, just put your name and work number down on a scrap of paper. And do try to be honest, this is for posterity.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Moderation stalking -- UPDATED -- UPDATED AGAIN, LAST UPDATE 18

Once again, someone went and down modded five of my comments in a two to three minute span of time. All of these comments were from stories that ranged from one to three days old, not old enough to be archived, but not exactly active, either.

This time, I decided to write to the powers that be: Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda. So far, it's proven to be an exercise in futility. Below is the email conversation we've had up to this point, going from oldest to newest email. Be sure to read the whole thing to keep things in perspective, and read on to the end where I've included a call to action.

Monday September 24, 9:04 am CST, from me to Taco
Rob,

My username on Slashdot is corbettw, and I think I'm being "stalked"
(for lack of a better term). I'm hoping you can help.

For several months now, there's been an ongoing campaign by some
person to mod all of my comments down. Just today, when I logged I had a message
about comment moderation: five moderations with minutes, all on different
stories, and all negative. Usually they're Overrated (which, of course, isn't
meta-moderated), but sometimes they're Troll (which is ludicrous).
It's obvious to me that someone is doing this on purpose. I've seen my
karma rating go from Excellent (where it's been for years), down to Good,
and now today down to Positive. Is there anything you guys can do to stop this
kind of stalking moderation?

I know there are more important things in the world than one's karma
rating on /., but it's still pretty annoying and is the only negative thing
on an otherwise favorite site. If there's anything you guys can do to cut
down on this, it would be much appreciated.

Cory

Monday September 24, 9:40 am CST, from Taco to me
I'll look into this and see if anything suspect is happening. Thanks
for the heads up.

Monday September 24, 2:41 pm CST, from me to Taco
I don't know if Slashcode gives you the ability to do this, but maybe you could put a check in place where, if someone moderates comments by the same user more than twice in a 24 hour window, they lose any moderation points in their pool and all recent moderations (within the previous 24 hours, for example) are undone. Though you might only limit it to negative moderations, since it doesn't really hurt anyone if someone gives their friends positive moderations all at once.

Just an idea, I have no idea how workable it is.

Monday September 24, 5:30 pm CST, from Taco to me
there are a number of checks in place to prevent extreme abuses. Don't worry ;)

Monday September 24, 9:25 pm CST, from me to Taco
Well, you might want to double check those checks, because they don't seem to be working all that well. I've heard from several other people today that they've been hit by the same thing.

Like I said before, my karma has gone from Excellent down to Positive. Maybe you guys just need to do away with Overrated, and keep a link to metamoderation up on the front page on a more regular basis (instead of swapping it out for the firehose and other links, like you started doing a few months ago).

Tuesday September 25, 7:03 am CST, from Taco to me
if anyone really thinks this is happening, they need to contact me and
not bitch somewhere that I might not see them. I gotta say- the # of
people that blame conspiracy on simply being modded down by random
users is pretty amazing... what you describe DOES occasionally happen.
But more often, people just can't BELIEVE that 3 people might call
them out on their obviously wonderful perfect flawless genius posts :)

Meta moderation is a difficult thing. We need more people to do it,
but the link is being ignored.

As for karma going from excellent to positive, I don't see that as
much of a big deal. Karma doesn't matter except to be negative or
positive really.

Tuesday September 25, 7:11 am CST, from me to Taco
Don't misunderstand me, it's not that Positive karma is bad, per se. Hell, I wouldn't even care if it was Negative, it doesn't really affect my life. But the speed with which it's dropped is the concern. And I'm not talking about 3 mod downs, I'm talking about 5, all within two to three minutes, all on stories that are two or three days old. It's blatantly obvious that one of my foes is going through my recent posts and modding them down. This isn't what the moderation system is meant for.

I'm a sarcastic, opinionated, guy (which is why I like Slashdot, duh). So, yeah, I'll say trollish things sometimes, or make a snarky comment that's not directly on topic. So the occasional Off-topic or Troll mod doesn't faze me. It's the obvious pattern of stalking behavior that's going on that has me concerned, and that's what I wanted to bring to your attention.

Not everybody is willing to contact you directly about this, for whatever reason(s). Rather than ignore an obvious problem, why don't you post a story on it? Bring the problem out into the open, and give people a forum on the front page for addressing the problem. You might be surprised how many people this has happened to.

Tuesday September 25, 7:25 am CST, from Taco to me
the faq pretty clearly explains to contact me in cases of abuse.

Tuesday September 25, 7:57 am CST, from me to Taco
OK, so now someone has contacted you about it. Now what?

That's where it stands as of now. I'll update as things progress. In the meantime, if you're reading this, and you've experienced the scenario I've described, PLEASE EMAIL CMDRTACO at Slashdot and share your experience(s) with him. He's obviously willing to ignore this problem until enough people complain about it.

UPDATE:
I just received another email from Taco. Here it is:
Tuesday September 25, 8:08 am CST, from Taco to me
I've looked into the allegations of abuse and made my decision about
what needs to be done about it. It's my policy not to explain
specifically what I find (or don't) or what I do (or don't do) in
response.

Hopefully this satisfies you... and hopefully you understand the need
to be coy on the matter... I've had this work out both ways- if I
find no abuse and tell you, sometimes readers will go post and bitch
that I'm a liar. If I *do* find abuse and tell you that, sometimes
readers will turn around and post their 'haha' message to say someone
got busted.

Quite simply, the mod system is an ongoing project with problems and
mistakes... its a constant balancing act... and since we have a small
percentage of assholes, there will ALWAYS be little problems in the
system. The question is how much we can do to stop assholes without
restricting the vaaaast majority of readers who are cool and
trustworthy.

September 25, 8:13 am CST, from me to Taco
Fair enough, although I have to say it's usually better to be open and up front about things like this rather than hide. That policy hasn't worked out too well for the current administration in the White House, I'm not sure why you think it'll work out any better for you.

My only goal in this is to help improve the Slashdot experience, so to help with that I've posted about this in my journal. I'm trying to raise the attention level of this problem.

I'll let you know if I see the same problem re-occurring. Hopefully more people will start contacting you directly about it, and it will finally get resolved.

(Yes, I'm assuming you're blowing this off. I have no evidence to the contrary, and most of your emails on this subject have displayed a very dismissive view on the problem. If that's not the case, then please let me know.)

LAST UPDATE:

Last email from Taco (it's his site, he gets the last word)
September 25 8:51 am CST, from Taco to me
Well, your journal post at least clearly demonstrates why I don't
spell out results of abuse investigations to readers...

Anyway, despite your attitude and insinuations, I welcome notification
from anyone with legitimate concern of abuse. While real abuse is
fairly rare, reader feedback is a key part of us dealing with the
problem when it arises.

So that's the end of the story, kids. Just make sure you email Taco about any problems, and we can all make this a better place to trade ideas and thoughts.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Again with the -1 to five comments at once

Once again, some fool with too much time on their hands decided to mod five of my comments as either Overrated, Redundant (when it wasn't), or Offtopic (again, when it wasn't), all at once. It makes me feel sad for these people, who have nothing better to do than try to silence people with whom they disagree. Can't they focus on lifting up conversations, instead of trying to censor everyone they don't like?

User Journal

Journal Journal: My new moderation rules 2

Thanks to several instances of getting five '-1, Overrated' mods on various posts of mine within a few minutes of each other (even when the posts in question occur days apart from each other), I've decided to fight fire with fire: whenever I get mod points, I systematically go through my friends and fans, find people who have either been modded down or don't get a karma bonus, and mod up whatever I can with '+1, Underrated'.

I call this method the "Share Your Voices" method of moderation. If you're reading this, please consider joining me in this effort to ensure that libertarian and conservative voices are not shut out by the censoring whores of the left on this site.

As for wasting my points on marking things as Overrated, I'll leave it to the leftists on Slashdot to hurt people, I'd rather try to help my friends than stifle my enemies.

Hardware Hacking

Journal Journal: Cheap hardware for home/theater automation?

I've got a server in my house, which always stays on. I can use cron and WakeOnLAN to wake my desktop, and with a bit of hacking, I can probably feed KOrganizer reminders from my desktop into the server's cron, and set my desktop to do something once booted, such as play some loud music. The one missing component is speakers -- how can I turn them on programmatically? (Thinking programmable power strip here.) Even better, are there some cheap, decent-sounding speakers I could get which can be entirely software-controlled, including volume and forceably switching to speakers, even if I leave my headphones plugged in?
User Journal

Journal Journal: Global Warming on Neptune

I tried submitting this item yesterday, and, surprise!, it was rejected. (I even submitted the link to the original article, not the one to Hot Air.)

Suffice to say, we all know Slashdot editors are idiot liberals, and anything that challenges their world view is verboten. But at least they provide journals so people can share news not deemed fit for the pages of /.

The summary of the article is that Neptune is experiencing global warming, and aside from the number of SUVs the Neptunians drive the only thing our two planets have in common is a common sun. So while I'm sure George Bush is still at fault, it looks like the sun is causing global warming, not "carbon emissions".

User Journal

Journal Journal: ClearCom "Headsets"

[A while ago I mentioned the ClearCom brand of headset intercoms in a post. These are commonly used in theaters and TV studios, in order to let everyone backstage / in the control room talk to everyone else. They're a pretty simple "party line" system (at least the 3-pin XLR type most commonly encountered) but are, IMO, a neat application of analog electronics. I got a few emails about the post, asking for more information on how they worked, and in responding to them I ended up typing out a fairly long document based on my best understanding.

In particular, people seemed curious about a feature of the ClearCom system, which allows the person at the "master box" (in a theater, it's usually the Stage Manager or their Assistant) to remotely unlock the PTT switches of everyone else on the line. This is nice if someone else has locked their mic on and is breathing into it, or if you have people whose hands are too full to unlock their own mic, or you don't want to bother them while they're doing something critical -- e.g., camera operators, stagehands, etc.

Don't assume anything I describe here is correct. It's been a few years since I've worked with any ClearCom gear, and I'm not an EE by trade anyway. I'm about 75% certain that the general principles described below are correct, but I wouldn't swear by any of it. Okay?]

The unlock feature isn't really a hack, it's an actual feature of the ClearCom system, by design.

I'll try to describe what I know about the ClearComs, but really the best explanation I've ever seen, and where I learned most of this, is from this page:

http://www.rcrowley.com/comclone/Project.htm
http://www.rcrowley.com/comclone/CircuitDesc.htm
http://www.rcrowley.com/comclone/default.htm

Basically it's a page on how to construct ClearCom-compatible (he calls them "ComClone") intercoms.

Basically ... it works something like this. The ClearComs use three-pin XLR (balanced audio microphone cable) as a physical medium. There is one master box, which plugs into the wall, and then there are many portable beltpacks, which you daisy-chain off of the master. In terms of topology it's kinda similar to old coax-based ethernet, only in addition to the shared-medium data line, you also have a Vcc and Gnd wire.

But instead of coax, you're using balanced audio cable, so you have two signal wires and then a shield wire running around them. One of the signal wires is used in the clearcom setup for power, another is used for (unbalanced!) audio, and then ground is used for a shared power/signal ground.

The master box feeds DC onto the power wire, and this is how all the devices on the system get power -- this way the belt packs don't need batteries. I think it's like 24VDC or so. The master box also terminates the audio signal wire, with some fixed resistance. I think it's like 600 ohms or something (don't quote me on that, though). And it grounds the third (ground) pin.

Each beltpack transmits audio onto the signal wire, by acting as a variable AC CURRENT source (not a variable voltage source, as you might suspect). Remember that the audio line is terminated at one point, back at the master console. So V = IR, with a fixed R (the termination resistor), means there's a fluctuating voltage signal.

In order to receive audio, each beltpack acts as some very very high resistance in between the audio signal and ground, and basically measures the voltage change. Since each beltpack acts as some really high impedance (up in the megohm range, I think), and the audio is transmitted as a fluctuating current through the terminating resistor, which is much, much smaller than the internal impedance of the beltpack receivers, you can put a lot of beltpacks on a circuit without diminishing the audio signal. The audio is basically right around "line level" (few hundred mV).

Also, and this is fairly important -- all the audio parts of the transmitters and receivers (which I think are opamps) are AC coupled; they're isolated with capacitors. This is important, because the system imposes a DC bias on the audio wire in order to send signals.

There are two types of control signals that the system allows for. One is the "attention" signal, which makes a light flash on the beltpacks, so that you can wake up someone who might have their headset off and get them to come on line. The other signal is the "hangup" signal, which causes the PTT switch on the remote stations to release.

Both of these functions can only be initiated from the master console (the one with the power supply in it). Basically, when you want to send 'attention,' you press a button, and the box imposes a DC bias equal to about half of the supply voltage on the signal line. The belt packs have a bright LED that goes on in response to this. I don't know exactly how it's triggered but there are a lot of ways you could do it (zeners, etc.)

For the other signal, the hangup signal, there's an even higher DC bias imposed, I think. (Maybe just Vcc, assuming that the attention signal is Vcc/2?) It could conceivably be a negative DC bias with respect to ground, or something else (I've never actually measured it), but it's some other kind of DC bias on the signal line.

The beltpacks all have PTT switches on them that are non-mechanical. When you press and hold one, it works like a PTT. When you press it twice, quickly, it "locks" and you can talk without holding it down. They are designed so that if the person at the master console presses the unlock button, the belt packs will unlock the PTT in response to the signal. Honestly I'm not sure exactly how the beltpacks accomplish this, since I've never reverse-engineered one; I'm pretty sure though that the home-made ComClones *won't* do it, so I think it's a fairly complex analog circuit. (The easiest way would be with a latching relay, but I'm pretty sure that this is not how the beltpacks work, I think it's all solid-state.)

Since the audio signal and these DC signaling pulses are on the same wire, whenever the person at the master console uses one of these features -- attention or unlock -- you can hear it in the headset as a "clunking" sound.

That's about all there is to them. There are a few competing designs for simple party-line intercoms to ClearCom's; Telex is the biggest alternative, and I think they may do something that allows for balanced audio (the ClearComs will hum if you get them too close to a power line, which is a problem in the theater where you're using them alongside horrifically noisy SCR-based lighting dimmers) but they're essentially the same idea.

They also make two-channel versions that use 4-pin XLR cable, and basically just have two signal lines, so you can have two "subnets" (say, you can put all your backstage crew on channel A, and all your front-of-house crew on chan B, so the FOH people don't hear the backstage chatter if they don't want to, but the stage manager, sitting at the master console, can talk to everyone or even bridge the two groups if he/she wants).

More modern systems made in the last 5-10 years are digital and/or allow for multiple channels on top of each other by using frequency modulation techniques; wireless ones are also big. However, the 2-wire (plus ground) ClearCom system is the de facto standard in many theaters and production facilities, and in many cases the buildings have been wired for them (plus you can run them through unused channels in XLR "snakes", etc.).

Anyway hope this made sense. I'll probably copy this email and put it in my /. journal, and perhaps some other knowledgeable folks will correct any mistakes I've made.

--
The body of the above message, excepting material quoted or reproduced from other sources, and specifically excluding any and all attachments unless specifically noted, is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License Version 1.2, with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts an no Back-Cover Texts, and may be copied, distributed and/or modified subject to the terms of the License at http://www.gnu.org/licenses/fdl.txt

If anyone sees anything in this description that's wrong, please feel free to correct me. Back when I worked in theaters more frequently, I had a variety of little interface boxes, that would convert from ClearCom intercom connections, to balanced line-level audio. My favorite use of these was to record a performance, keeping the backstage headset audio as an alternate audio track. (Generally I'd record them to the linear audio tracks on a VHS tape, and put the house-reinforcement audio onto the HiFi tracks; then I could dub people whichever version they wanted -- the actors could get one of their show, the technical people one of 'theirs.' Today I suppose you could do the same thing with multiple audio tracks on MiniDV.) I've also seen projects for interfacing audio+ClearCom systems together, so that you can hear the house sound as background on your headset, behind the backstage chatter.

Anyway, point is, from a geek's perspective, the ClearCom is a great system, because the hacking potential is limitless and pretty easy.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Inheritance taxes and the perpetuation of the aristocracy 4

In a comment earlier today, I responded to a comment regarding inheritance taxes. As I find the topic interesting, I decided to expand on it. Consider this a work-in-progress.

Inheritance taxes are frequently put forward as a sort of anti-aristocratic tool; a way to somehow prevent families from passing large sums of money -- and consequently, power -- down from one generation to another and perpetuating themselves without any real 'work.'

I believe this is wrong, in multiple senses. First, it is wrong in the moral sense, since I believe that it is a violation of any reasonable definition of human rights which allow for the free and independent action of individuals to exercise control over their property as they see fit. (I am aware that there are some people who do not believe in such rights, but frankly I'm not interested in arguing with them -- I'm also aware that there are people who believe that the Earth is flat, or that God created the world 5,000 years ago in about a week; there's a certain point where I'm willing to just write people off as wrong and save my breath. Suffice it to say that if you don't believe in, or are unwilling to take the concept of physical property as a premise, I have very little else to say to you.)

Leaving aside the moral wrongness of inheritance taxes, I also think that they clearly fail at what's often put forward as their chief purpose: preventing the creation of a capitalist aristocracy. Far from this, they actually perpetuate and protect a very particular kind of non-meritocratic aristocracy: the aristocracy not of money, but of political and social power and connections.

Inheritance taxes punish hardest those people who are highly successful in the financial sense, but unsuccessful in the political or social realms; when they die, they leave their children mostly money, which is then pillaged by the government. In contrast, someone else who took the majority of their financial wealth and skillfully converted it to political power (a basically straightforward transaction, for someone raised in the right environment), could easily pass these connections onto their children, entirely untaxed and unfettered.

Thus, the true aristocracy escapes the inheritance taxes and manage to perpetuate their power, because their biggest assets are not necessarily in their bank accounts or even in their investments, they are in their social networks and contacts; they are in the people that they can get their children in to meet; the schools they can get them into; in some cases, simply their names themselves.

Rather than being hurt by inheritance taxes, the true aristocracy realizes that wealth is more than just money, and doesn't seem too worried by them; you rarely hear the Rockefellers or the Kennedys whining, for instance. And why should they -- in fact, inheritance taxes are the best form of protectionism for the truly powerful, because it provides a barrier to entry, keeping the nouveau riche from ever pushing themselves into the very top echelon. The nature of true power is that it takes time to accrue, and by levying punishing taxes on those who have recently acquired power (and still have it in cash, rather than in the more nebulous social connections of "old money") they can keep them down and the playing field sparse.

In short, inheritance taxes protect and encourage those who play 'by the rules' -- rules written by the very powerful. Buy into the system, take your money and pour it into quasi-philanthropy, skillful investment, and political contributions, and you can create power that will last through generations; try to keep it in the bank, and it'll be decimated before your children can use it.

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Journal Journal: The Attraction of "Strong IP" 3

(I got a fair bit of email about this so I'm putting it here just for convenience and so I don't have to keep digging for the original comment. I was asked about redistribution rights -- you may consider it licensed under the GFDL, although I would appreciate attribution via a link to this page or the original comment if possible.)

Original URL: http://yro.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=233075&cid=18952399
Parent: http://yro.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=233075&cid=18951709

I think the answer is staring you in the face: as a nation, the U.S. imports a lot of physical goods, but exports a lot of intellectual property. Therefore, we reward companies who chisel their foreign suppliers into squeezing their employees, because this results in cheap imports here in the States. Likewise, we punish IP 'theft,' because IP is one of the last things that we seem to be able to produce and sell.

Now, I'm no fan of the DMCA, because I think it causes more damage and economic loss, here in the U.S., than it can or will ever possibly create in new IP-export revenue. But the logic driving it, when you separate it from the implementation, isn't that hard to understand, at least from a certain point of view. Allow me to illustrate how I think many people see the problem:

When we set aside irrational feelings of American exceptionalism -- those warm feelings that politicians always play to, when they talk about the "American worker" being the "best in the world" as if it was self-evident -- it is not immediately clear exactly how our previous success over the past century [1], necessarily translates into continued success in the future. In short, although everyone likes to say reassuring things like "Americans have always been at the forefront of innovation!", those words ring pretty hollow -- it's not clear why we would continue to be. We're not smarter than everyone else, our education system basically sucks, and we have a culture that's increasingly anti-intellectual and in some cases bordering on non-secular.

What this boils down to is: in a fully globalized economy, it's not clear what areas the U.S. will have a comparative advantage in. We'll probably always be able to export some agricultural products, but agricultural products do not a first-world civilization pay for. Same with natural resources like coal and timber but we'll need them here eventually, so we'd just be selling ourselves down the river. So what do you have left, when you've outsourced everything that can be outsourced to lower-cost second- and third-world areas? I think Neal Stephenson was onto something: music, movies, microcode, and pizza delivery.

'Pizza delivery' is the remaining service-sector crap that can't be outsourced. Music and movies are 'cultural exports,' things that for whatever reason, have a certain cachet in the rest of the world, and so don't really fall victim to direct price competition with foreign competitors. And microcode [1A] -- even if we're not the best at that, either, we'll use our monopoly to milk the rest of the world pretty good for as long as we can. But we can only do that if we can get them to buy into the legal framework which lets you sell IP as if it were physical goods. Hence, the DMCA and other 'strong IP' laws.

All of this is just my rather long-winded way of trying to explain why so many people (people in government in particular) are hooked on strong IP law (including the DMCA, DRM, and anti-circumvention), and proprietary software: they see it as a way to ensure that the U.S. can still make money doing the only thing that we seem to be good at. It may not seem at first glance to make a whole lot of sense, particularly to non-Americans, but I've met a lot of fairly powerful people who are very, very nervous about where the New/Global Economy is headed, and how the U.S. is going to maintain its standard of living [2] in the future. If you're looking for a near-magic solution, which you are if you're a politician, grabbing onto intellectual property as the salvation of high-cost Western society probably isn't the stupidest thing you'll do all day.

### Footnotes: ###

[1] Much of which is attributable to having had the good luck not to get involved in any home-turf land wars (like Europe, which got flattened, some of it twice) and getting on board the capitalism bus early (unlike Asia, which is just coming around to this whole market-economy business).

[1A] I'm using "microcode" here to represent basically all IP-derived exports, which includes most pharmaceuticals, since they're more of an information product than a physical good, even if they're generally distributed only in a 'compiled' form (pills).

[2] To say nothing of its political dominance (which is driven by economic dominance) and which a fair number of conservative people see as essential to keep the world from being overrun by Communists/Islamists/Huns/whatever.

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Journal Journal: The Great Global Warming Swindle 3

It seems that UK's Channel 4 "Great Global Warming Swindle", which the anti-global warming crowd, including Janet Daley of the Telegraph (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2007/03/12/do1201.xml) has run into a bit of a problem; mainly that the only swindle going on was the program.

According to the RealClimate blog (http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/03/swindled/), the program was in fact a collection of defunct claims, half-truths, and in the case of Carl Wunsch's contribution, misrepresenting his views. This sort of deceit and dishonesty shouldn't be a surprise, but what is sad is that fiction suddenly gets trumpeted as a legitimate scientific critique of Global Warming.
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Journal Journal: An(other) Inconvenient Truth 2

In case this doesn't get accepted, here's a submission I just put into the queue:
From the National Geographic Society comes a(nother) report that Mars is warming at a similar pace as the earth, pointing to a solar, not a human, cause of both. Obviously, the Society is pandering to Big Oil....

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